IN A BOON for human rights and corporate responsibility, a Superior Court judge in California last week refused to dismiss a suit charging that the energy company Unocal is liable for human rights abuses perpetrated by the military junta in Burma while the regime was under contract to provide security for Unocal and its partners in a natural gas pipeline project.
If the suit goes to trial next September as scheduled, it may cast light on a corporation's obligation not to abet human rights abusers as well as on the horrors of life under the military dictators who rule Burma.
Attorneys for Burmese villagers who are the plaintiffs in the suit plan to present testimony, in person and on videotape, describing how Burmese Army battalions working for Unocal compelled the villagers to perform forced or slave labor. Plaintiffs say they will recount how they were beaten, chained, and raped. One Burmese woman is prepared to tell the jury that soldiers killed her infant by throwing it into a fire.
The suit does not seek to prevent companies such as Unocal from participating in business ventures such as the Yadana pipeline, which carries natural gas from Burma to Thailand. Indeed, advocates of democracy in Burma initially asked Unocal to let monitors from Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch keep an eye on the Burmese military during preparations for laying the pipeline from 1992 until 1995. If Unocal had accepted the presence of monitors, chances are that the villagers would not have been brutalized as they were and Unocal would not have exposed itself to the humiliating publicity likely to follow the villagers' testimony.
The plaintiffs say they can document that Unocal knew that the Burmese military would resort to forced labor and other abuses when it hired the junta to provide security and build infrastructure for the pipeline. The plaintiffs say the company did nothing to stop human rights violations it knew about and tried to disclaim responsibility for stopping them.
Under the law, the plaintiffs need not show that Unocal caused the villagers' suffering. They need only show that the company is liable for the plaintiffs' harms because, through its joint-venture partnership or hiring of the Burmese junta, Unocal was responsible for aiding and abetting the military's crimes.
Such abuses are continuing in Burma. Although the junta recently hired an expensive US lobbying firm with ties to top Republicans, the regime is not keeping its promises to conduct a political dialogue with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi or released all its 1,500 political prisoners.
The California case has the potential to show the junta's abuses in startling detail and to expose the role of corporations that partner with such regimes.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.